25 December 2016

Broadway "Miracle" of 2016…???

In a sad example of just how little people in the arts really assimilate about the way the rest of society works (for good or ill), a piece at American Theatre laments overpricing of live-theatre tickets in New York City by comparison to the early 1980s (when I, but for a difference in scholarships offered, very well might have been rubbing shoulders with him in the audience). There are three fatal, fundamental problems with the lament — none of which, sadly, take away from its ultimate conclusion that the ticket prices are class-selective of the audience, and that that is a bad thing:

  • The main problem is the assumption that all of the money is going to the theatre companies themselves. Umm, not so much. The modern ticket-broker's (and other intermediaries') take is in excess of 40% of the ticket price, versus around 10% in 1984 (as measured in the only apparently reliable study I've seen, and that's from memory as my stuff is in storage). Using his own numbers, that means that a $25 ticket in 1984 would have returned $22.50 to the theatre company (and let's set aside the dubious and increasingly murky distinction between the owner of the theatre facility and the "owner" of the theatre company, shall we?). If inflation were the only issue, the theatre company would need to price its ticket at not his proclaimed $58 to receive an inflation-adjusted equivalent of $22.50, but around $90.
  • And that assumes that the product is otherwise identical. Instead, we've got the "safer cars" problem. Comparing a 2016 car to one of 1962 is laughable; the 1962 Chevy has no airbags (or seatbelts), no crumple protection, no full-on safety glass, no cruise control, no electronics system, vastly poorer fuel efficiency, and tires that wear out three to five times as early. And that's just the obvious stuff. Similarly, the facilities and infrastructure now — hinted at in Professor Jones's comments about the public safety in/around the theatres in the early 1980s… or lack thereof — with wheelchair-accessible seating (well, purportedly), fewer rats in the bathrooms, nontoxic paint and insulation, etc., are of better value to the public, but at a higher immediate price for just the "packaging." That is necessarily going to be reflected in more than just "inflation," which after all assumes that the two prices being compared are for not just equivalent, but identical, items. And in this sense, comparing theatre price changes to cinema price changes is highly instructive…
  • Perhaps most insidious, though, there's a significant class/race/gender issue with the people who work in theatre — the flip side of Professor Jones's concern that high ticket prices "limit accessibility." And he's right to be concerned that audiences are being unduly restricted by high ticket prices… but forgetting that low ticket prices unduly restrict the participants to those actors, musicians, stagehands, janitors, theatre staff, etc. who can afford to continue making art while earnings are below starvation (the subtext in All That Jazz is not irrelevant). More to my personal concerns, it also explains a lot about the demographics of employment at commercial publishers…

In short, Professor Jones, you've expressed a valid concern: Overly high ticket prices are unduly restricting accessibility to "legitimate theatre" in New York, and indeed elsewhere (especially once you drop that condescending tag of "legitimate"). But you've forgotten the Rent involved in remaining hyperfocused on a city built by, on, and around speculation in real estate — as yuuuuuuugely apparent in its, umm, leading citizen. The context doesn't just matter: It's the entire third act.